When I started this list a few weeks back, I stated that the number rankings wouldn’t really matter for awhile. These were simply the 100 horror films that had the most profound effect on me and I was going to list most of them arbitrarily. Can I really say that Dracula is the 99th greatest horror film of all time? Of course not. However, now that we’re getting down to the wire, the numbers are going to start to matter a bit more. I built this list from the ground up, starting with my number one choice and moving on from there. So these last ten films before we get to the top twenty are sort of the first ‘rejects’, for lack of a better word. All the films below came close but didn’t quite make the cut. I’m sure their omission from that coveted section of the list will irk more than few people but such is the nature of lists like this. They’re meant to prompt discussion after all. Anyway, read on to find out which films almost made the top twenty!
People are quick to name filmmakers such as Adam Wingard, Ti West, and The Soska sisters as the bold new voices in the horror genre but hardly anyone brings up Justin Benson and Aaron Moorehead, which is a crime. They have two features to their name and BOTH have made this list. While I like the directors listed above, none of their work even came close to making the cut. Their films are largely based on nostalgia for the 80s, which is fine and all but they are not pushing the genre forward in any way. Benson and Moorehead are. They paint on a small canvas, thus allowing them to create more detailed and powerful works of art. Anyone who dismisses Spring as a standard genre mashup have no idea what they’re talking about. This is an honest, touching romance that accurately depicts the feelings brought up by new relationships. We feel the characters’ giddiness, excitement, nervousness, and pleasure as they get to know each other and find a connection. When the horror element comes into play, it’s not used to shock but to inform and deepen our knowledge of both protagonists. It challenges both of their philosophies and allows them to open up in ways they never have before. I suppose Benson and Moorehead could have made a straight romantic drama but they didn’t want to. They wanted to play around in the genre they love and show that horror films can easily be as moving and profound as the best ‘serious minded’ pictures. They succeeded. Spring is a modern horror masterpiece. Full review here.
In the previous section of this list, I wrote that I don’t care for haunted house movies that function as funhouse rides. Poltergeist is the exception to that rule. When a ride is this wild and thrilling, you can’t help but go along for it. The fact that there are more than a few moments of genuine dread is an added bonus. Tobe Hooper’s name may be on the film but this is a Steven Spielberg affair through and through. It’s got a lot of his trademarks (normal family swept up by something fantastical, untrustworthy bureaucrats, a slow build up that eventually explodes into madness) and absolutely none of Hooper’s. Craig T. Nelson and JoBeth Williams are relatable as the former freewheeling children of the sixties now living out the most typical American Dream. The scene where they share a joint before bed is one of many well observed moments. The kids are solid too. It’s a damn miracle that none of them are annoying. Really there’s just so much to praise here: Zelda Rubinstein, the face ripping scene, the tree attack, the clown doll, and Heather O’Rourke’s chilling utterance of “they’re here.” However, the most entertaining moment can be found below. Thanks to Huey for pointing it out.
Brian DePalma’s adaptation of Stephen King’s first novel set a high water mark for all future King adaptations. It captures the tone and themes of the novel while adding in two of the most memorable performances in the horror genre. Sissy Spacek brings vulnerability and fierce intensity to the role of Carrie while Piper Laurie is positively terrifying as her abusive mother. When these two are onscreen, the movie soars. While Laurie makes the larger overall impression, it’s Soacek who carries the film on her shoulders. We have to both sympathize with and fear Carrie for the film to work. Spacek pulls that off with ease. The metaphors present in regards to teenagers being unable to control their emotions are as obvious here as they were in the novel but it still cannot be denied that they ring true, making Carrie an equal parts scary tale and tragic coming of age story.
27. Kill List
The scariest horror films overflow with dread from the first frame to the last. Dread puts the viewer on edge and permeates the screen, making one afraid that something terrible will happen at any given moment. Half of the suspense comes from waiting for the other shoe to drop, causing you to cringe in your seat as if the film itself is out to hurt you. Such is the case with Ben Wheatley’s Kill List. All of Wheatleys films defy easy categorization. They often shock, amuse, and terrify at points where other films would take a more traditional narrative path. Take the two hit men at the center of Kill List, played by Neil Maskel and Michael Smiley. Based on dynamics from other films, we assume that one of them will prove to be calm and rational and the other violently unhinged. We’re right of course, but the answer to which one is which serves as a genuine surprise and adds layers to both men. A few critics have stated that Kill List doesn’t make sense, which leads me to two points: 1) Nope. It makes plenty of sense and if you can’t be bothered to pay attention, that’s on you. 2) Even if it didn’t make sense, this would still be an immensely powerful and terrifying film. The final act alone features more moments of unadulterated horror than most films can fit into a whole feature. And the ending is positively brutal; a perfect depiction of fully realized dread and a painful revelation that this is where the story has been heading all along.
As previously stated, Dario Argento is the most hit and miss filmmaker on this list. He either makes horrendous dreck or hallucinatory nightmares. Of course his best film, Phenomena falls into the latter category. A young Jennifer Connelly stars as a spoiled rich girl with the ability to communicate with bugs. When a deranged killer starts stalking her boarding school, she teams up with an entomologist (Donald Pleasance) to stop him. What could have been a standard giallo picture–not unlike much of Argento’s filmography–is elevated by this set up. The bugs prove to be her greatest ally; maggots lead her to unfound bodies and a fly leads her to the killer’s home, which sets the stage for a grand, operatic finale. Phenomena is a film that draws us in easily and highlights Argento in full command of his technique. The kill scenes are focused more on suspense than gore and the characters, including the killer, are fully developed. He doesn’t fetishize his heroine as he does in so many other films. He treats her as a real person, complete with certain distasteful personality traits. One of the film’s most unsettling sequences finds her using her gift to scare off bullies. It showcases her inner strength while not forgetting how dangerous her power is. Argento shows as much restraint during the first hour as he’s ever shown, which allows the utter insanity of the last act to feel earned and unnerving rather than perfunctory. And that moment when the killer finally turns around? “Holy Shit” is the only appropriate response to it.
Roger Ebert applied a quote by Pauline Kael in his favorable review of Re-Animator: “the movies are so rarely great art, that if we can’t appreciate great trash, there is little reason for us to go.” I can see why he thought that applicable to a film that features a severed head going down on a naked woman, but I think it misses the mark a bit. Calling Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator “great trash” is not only a backhanded compliment, it also cheapens what Gordon set out to do and achieved. As a fan of the influential H.P. Lovecraft, Gordon wanted to create a faithful adaptation of one of his stories. Previous attempts had been unsuccessful to say the least. This is partly because the images he creates are impossible to translate to the screen but mostly because no one had really tried. Torn between two stories, Gordon eventually chose to adapt Herbert West–Reanimator. What most Lovecraft fans fail to remember about that particular tale is that it is one of his (very) few comedies. Yes, it traverses in gore and his consistent ‘fear of the unknown’ theme is present but it is a story meant to illicit more chuckles than screams. One need only look at the title to see that Lovecraft was having a bit of a laugh. So was Mr. Gordon. He modernized the tale but kept nearly everything else intact while throwing in some inspired lunacy of his own. Toss in Jeffrey Combs as the most astonishingly persistent mad scientist ever and you’ve got one of the all time great horror comedies. It hurtles forward with malicious glee and constantly ups the ante on the insane-o-meter. The gruesome sequences are as appealing as they are hilarious, which was clearly Mr. Gordon’s intent. I think a quote by Mel Brooks is far more applicable when describing Re-Animator. When an angry patron of The Producers reportedly told Brooks that his film was ‘vulgar’, Brooks corrected the woman by saying, “Madam, my film rises below vulgarity.” That’s about right.
24. The Devil’s Backbone
The orphanage sits in the middle of nowhere. The only sign of outside influence is a leftover bomb embedded in the desert sand that could go off at any moment. This is the setting for Guillermo Del Toro’s magnificent The Devil’s Backbone, a ghost story where history is a much of a feared spirit as the film’s main specter. This is a place ruined by war where all the two proprietors can do is grit their teeth and move towards an uncertain future. That future is represented by the young protagonist, a resourceful boy who uncovers a sinister mystery in the basement of the orphanage. The mystery brings old wounds to the surface while a very real threat is headed towards the heroes. Suspenseful, touching, sad, frightening, and heartfelt, The Devil’s Backbone is the best kind of ghost story, where the obstacles of the afterlife are no match for the trials and tribulations of waking life. It’s easy to be dead. It’s far harder to move forward when everything around you suggests that it’d be better to simply lay down and die.
23. Return of the Living Dead
Well, shit. I jumped the gun on that “rises below vulgarity” quote. It applies even more to Dan O’Bannon’s Return of the Living Dead than it does to Re-Animator. Let me share a brief personal story: when I was a kid, there was a local video store about two miles from my house than I spent most of my summers walking back and forth from. On a day in late August, when I had exhausted almost every entry in the horror section, I rented five movies I had been avoiding sitting through all summer for fear they wouldn’t be good. They were Graveyard Shift, The Birds II: Land’s End, The Guardian, Pet Semetary 2, and Return of the Living Dead. Bored and with nothing else to do, I watched the first four as soon as I got home and quickly grew tired. They were all garbage and I didn’t even make it entirely through Graveyard Shift and Birds II. Exhausted after a day of disappointments, I popped Return of the Living Dead into my VCR, figuring I’d be shutting it off in ten minutes. From the second it began to the moment it ended, I was overjoyed. Here, at long last was a horror film right up my alley. When veteran character actor James Karen turned to the new boy working in the chemical factory and asked him if he’d ever seen Night of the Living Dead, I knew I was watching something far ahead of its time. Here was a horror movie where the characters had seen other horror movies! Was that even allowed back in the 80’s? I thought Scream started that! The characters’ knowledge of zombie films provides some truly hilarious sequences, my personal favorite being the scene (pictured above) where they shove a pickaxe through a zombie’s skull only to find it still moving, leading to this exchange:
FRANK: You have to hit the brain!
BURT: (pointing at the pickaxe) I hit the fucking brain!
FRANK: It worked in the movie!
BURT: Well, It ain’t working now Frank!
That kind of manic, idiotic intensity carries the whole film, which only gets zanier as it continues. I can’t even think about one scene, where Burt tells a dumbfounded mortician that the moving bags of body parts he’s brought over contain nothing more than rabid weasels, without cracking up. This is the kind of ‘go-for-broke’ style of horror picture that was so prevalent in the 80’s and is largely absent today. It’s also interesting to note that most people have no idea how influential this film is. It created the idea that zombies walk around and mutter, “BRAINS” while seeking out a victim. Unlike Romero’s work, it has no social commentary whatsoever, which is perfectly fine. It’s interested only in entertaining and being as utterly silly as possible, which is sort of funny in itself considering that this is by far the bleakest zombie universe to exist in. Nothing kills these things. NOTHING. And the virus is not limited to humans. You’re just as likely to get attacked by a split-dog as a yellow, naked man. If that last sentence made no sense to you at all, you need to see Return of the Living Dead immediately.
Jaws is so known by everyone that anything I have to say about it is going to come off as redundant. We all know that Jaws is a masterpiece. We all know that Robert Shaw’s speech is one of the most widely quoted and well-remembered in cinema history. We all know that the decision by Steven Spielberg (partly brought on by mechanical problems) to keep the shark off screen for most of the film’s running time greatly adds to the suspense level. We all know that the friendship that blossoms between Roy Scheider and Richard Dreyfuss is as engaging as the hunt for the shark. We all know that the music is iconic and terrifying. We all know that the Mayor is a goddamn idiot. We all know that certain scenes, like the one where the grieving mother confronts Scheider, are powerful and well observed. We all know that the terror level on the beach is palpable. We all know that the finale is a triumph of practical effects and smart action. And of course, we all know that we need a bigger boat. What more is there to say?
I’m sure a few people are going to shout at me for me for my decision to have John Carpenter’s seminal slasher film miss being in the top twenty by a single number but remember, it’s my damn list. And please don’t get me wrong, I love Halloween. I just love twenty other horror films a little bit more. It’s another one though, like Jaws, where I don’t have a lot to say you don’t already know. I will say that the film works best when you view Michael Meyers as a personification of pure evil, an idea the sequels and remakes tried to either double down on or over explain. Neither approach worked. The idea is summed up best in that simple exchange at the end between Donald Pleasance and Jamie Lee Curtis:
LAURIE: It was the boogeyman.
LOOMIS: As a matter of fact, it was.
Those clear, concise lines of dialogue sum up the entire movie: it wastes no time and cuts right to the chase. We get to know the characters through their actions and there is one scene of striking suspense after another. Like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Halloween is relentless in its mission to scare the pants of you.
Stay tuned for Part 9 as we finally reach the top twenty!